MLK day.

Jan. 15th, 2007 05:29 pm
tssandwich: (Default)
[personal profile] tssandwich
This memory has been poking around my brain lately (when I'm not plotting to make digital audio receivers out of duct tape and cottage cheese), and I thought I'd post it.

Taking aside the question as to whether Dr. King would have wanted people to get the day off for his birthday (I think he wouldn't, and if I was in a slightly better financial position with a slightly less pregnant wife, I'd volunteer my time today), I think that the most important part of MLK's birthday and African-American History Month (February) is that things tend to slip out of people's memories after a short period of time. And while (so far, to my knowledge), the human race has been spared idiots claiming that slavery never existed, both the African diaspora (and Civil Rights movement which followed four centuries later) and the Holocaust have tended to slip from the immediacy of memory.

In 1993-94, I was working at a local medical school, answering phones half the time, and doing database management half the time. One of the neat things about the job (which paid decently, but not well) was that the division of the medical school I was working in got lots of foreign students. And it happened that in 1993-94, they had a huge group of Soros Foundation-sponsored doctors who were studying here in the States to get up to date on diagnostic technology. As I recall, the group I'm thinking of included three Ukrainians, a Romanian, a Slovene, a Croat, and a few Czechoslovaks (Slovakia not yet being independent). I made friends with them quickly; at first because it was a cold winter and I was the only American they saw on a regular basis who could translate Fahrenheit into Celsius in his head ("Is minus 15 Fahrenheit. Feels almost as cold as Ukraine. How cold in metric?"), later, because I had actually visited Yugoslavia when it was still communist, and because I'd taken Eastern European history and knew something, even just a little, about all of their countries.

Around this time of year in early 1994, I was walking a group of these docs to some event or another in Chinatown. I don't remember what it was we were going to there, just that it was in Chinatown, and about a 20 minute walk from the hospital. And at some point, one of the Ukrainians asked me a question which truly dumbfounded me:

Why are American Blacks so angry, so plentiful in Philadelphia, and why are they in such menial positions compared to Whites? Didn't the American Civil War end 130 years ago? Why were they still bitter? Why were they still complaining?

I explained the great Southern exodus of African-Americans in the 1930s to the North, explained that until very recently-- within the lifetimes of these doctors, in fact-- African-Americans were denied the right to vote, the right to own property or even to live in the neighborhood of their choice, the right to marry outside their "race," the right to use the same bathrooms and water fountains as everyone else. I think I made an analogy to the Romany in Eastern Europe, which sort of made sense to them. I talked about Dr. King and Malcolm X and Bull Connor and George Wallace, and the waterhoses being turned on children, and the bombing of black churches. I mentioned that my own father, when he was about my age, had seen Dr. King give his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington. I talked about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. I pointed out that in many cases, that this was the first generation of African Americans who even had the choice to go to college. They listened raptly for about fifteen minutes, and then responded.

They were just as stunned by my answer as I was by their question. They had seen all the same footage I had of peaceful protesters mauled by dogs and attacked by high-pressure hoses. They'd heard and read the same speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. They'd read extensively about the American Civil Rights Movement in school when covering American History, or, in the case of the older ones, every day in the newspapers.

And they'd written it all off as Anti-American propaganda of the sort the Soviet government was notorious for. "This was real?" they asked, almost in unison. None of them could believe, given their vision of the United States as a land of freedom and democracy-- the antithesis of the Soviet Union, that such a thing could have actually happened here. Under Communism? Sure. In South Africa? Sure. But the United States? Land of Freedom? Land of Opportunity?

A word to the wise guy: it may be a silly holiday in that banks and the stock market are closed for no good reason, and even sillier in that schools are also closed. It may seem like a single day that doesn't even come close to honoring a man who was certainly one of the 5 most important Americans of the 20th Century, if not the most important. But it means a lot, symbolically and literally. It means a lot.

Happy birthday, MLK.
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